Everything I wanted you to learn from literature but you probably didn't learn because you were too worried about what was going to be on the test
By Sharon H. Gehbauer '89
Twenty-three years ago, I was sitting exactly where you are right now. Back in the 80s, we wore pastel dresses for Madonna Day and white gowns for Graduation. I, in my sky blue silk Laura Ashley dress with lace collar, was six rows from the front, three seats from the left. My classmates were gracefully entering the auditorium, reverently placing roses in the vases at the feet of the Madonna, and I was deep in contemplative thought, asking the big questions: Will anyone have the same white dress as I do tomorrow (because that would be mortifying)? Will I get at least one award? Or worse, what if I trip in these shoes as I walk up to get my award? Better to not get one. And most important of all: How will I get my thrice hair-sprayed 80s style big hair under my graduation cap? I looked over at my best friend who did not seem as contemplative as I. We had just recently purchased our color-coordinated yet, stylistically different bed sets and room décor for our dorm room at UT. I already had my college wardrobe planned. Oh, we were ready. We were at the close of act one in our lives and setting the scene and costume changes for act two. We were so ready!
Graduates, most of you, if not all, are ready, too. But, many of us here in this auditorium are not quite ready for you to go. In the last couple of months, I have been waking up in the middle of the night. My eyes shoot open and I start worrying about you in college: Will your thesis statements be strong and argumentative? Will you remember to write in present tense for literature and past for history? Will you remember the metaphorical meaning of Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy? In other words, did you learn everything I had hoped you learned from literature and the writing process? So, I decided to take the advice of my own personal saint, Ms. Anne Doyle, who said to me, "Sharon, now's your opportunity. You've got a captive audience. Tell them everything you want them to know, and more." And so, the title of my speech is Everything I wanted you to learn from literature but you probably didn't learn because you were too worried about what was going to be on the test. Let's start with the fiction writers.
What do Achebe, Bronte, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, and Morrison want us to know and believe? They want us to know that everyone has a story. Holden Caulfield, Jane Eyre, Jay Gatsby, Okonkwo, all characters from completely different walks of life, but each one with a fascinating story to create, read, and remember. This is no different from real life. The curtain of your life is about to open and reveal a world of unknowns. Embrace the opportunity to get to know other people's stories. Do not be afraid to take a risk and get to know someone. Remember at the end of Things Fall Apart when the District Commissioner reduced the life of Okonkwo down to one paragraph? We do that to one another sometimes, but if there is anything that St. Agnes has taught you over the last four years, it is that we are so much more than our appearances. Most importantly, do not let anyone reduce your story down to a paragraph. You are the protagonist in your own story, and what is so exciting is that you don't know the ending.
At some point in every English class, one student will have the guts to shout out: Mrs. Gehbauer, what if it is just a tree? What if the writer just wanted to put a tree in there? Does it have to be a symbol? First, I say, "Zoe, stop trying to get us off the subject. The test is still going to be on Thursday." But then I emphatically say, "No, the writer absolutely plans and knows what she is doing." That is only a half truth. Yes, the writer has a plan when she starts to write. As she shows up at the page every day to write, the characters, plot and literary devices kind of just appear and jump off the page. The writer thinks: Wow! That is exactly what I wanted to say. In other words, the story starts to write itself. That is sort of how life works: you have a plan, but then you are hit with some plot changes and pretty soon you find that you are so much happier and fulfilled with the rewrites.
When I graduated from St. Agnes, I had every intention of following my dream of becoming a Broadway actress. After my first year as a drama major at UT, I was accepted at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and traveled to New York City to audition. But through a series of events, I came back home and am now an English teacher, a converted Catholic, a wife, a mother, a passionate home cook, a fashion guru and the occasional writer and poet. I am surrounded by family, friends, and colleagues who delight me, challenge me, and support me. And girls, I am happier than I have ever been in my life.
For a while after I left New York I saw myself as a failure, because I thought I had given up on my dream. It was a dark time in my life. The world tells us go big or go home. I emerged from that plot change with a clearer understanding of my story, and it was so much more than just being an actress on the stage. I was destined to be a woman on a mission - a mission to inspire my St. Agnes students to love literature and to find their voices. That story fits every part of who I am. I opened myself up to it and to entering into the stories of others. Which bring us to the poets.
Dickinson, Emerson, Langston, Sappho, and Whitman - how do these visionaries want us to live our lives? They want us to sit still and pay attention to the details. When Dante and Virgil are stalled at the Gate of Lower Hell and could go no further without Divine Intervention, Dante tries to get Virgil to allay his fear of what was to come, but fails. What is Dante trying to get at? Human reason can fail us at the most critical of junctures. And it is in those times of crisis before we move on in our journeys, when we need to sit still, listen, and wait for divine inspiration. That inspiration comes in the form of details. Details reveal truth.
When I was at UT, my favorite class was not my acting class, it was dramaturgy where we all sat around a conference table and analyzed plays from an historical point of view. For costume and set design, I would spend hours upon hours sewing little teeny sequins onto my miniature fairy costumes for Ken and Barbie dolls for my Midsummer Night's Dream design, but I only spent 30 minutes or so preparing for a monologue performance. In New York, my favorite moments of the day were attending noon mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and I wasn't even Catholic yet. And, every afternoon after classes, I would stop at this little tea shop and order a cup of Darjeeling tea and a lemon tart. I would sit at a small round table with fresh flowers and read a novel. Occasionally, I would look out at the people passing on the street, write little things down in my journal, and make up stories. Ladies, pay attention to those moments when you feel the most engaged, excited, blissful, passionate, and in love. It is in those moments of downtime that you will hear the quiet poetic voice that connects you to your destiny.
And lastly the playwrights: What do Euripides, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Tennessee Williams want you to do? Embrace conflict. It is what makes life interesting. It is the difference between being just good and being great. We would not be reading Hamlet in the 21st century if he had listened to his father's ghost and replied: I don't think I am going to get involved. If Medea had responded to Jason's unjust treatment of her with victimization, it just wouldn't have made for a good story. Granted, I don't know that we need to resort to Medea's drastic measures, but sometimes life requires you to fight the good fight. Ladies, you are more than just women going off to college, you are Veritas women. It's big.
My father once commented to me that one of the best decisions he and my mother had ever made was sending me to St. Agnes. When they drove away after moving me in to college, he noticed that while the rest of the girls in the dorm were just girls, my best friend and I were ladies. Lady: It is a weird word, and yet, think about how many times you have been called that collectively. You may never be called that again in such a way. Curious, I looked up the definition. After perusing descriptions about social authority and good manners, I got to this one at the end: A woman who is a member of an order of knighthood. All of a sudden, in my mind I had a picture of all of you wearing your crisp, newly ironed uniforms. Underneath, all of you wore black spandex superhero costumes with a great big gold 'V' for Veritas on the front. You were each carrying your various weapon of choice in true Katniss style, ready to go out into the world and attack the injustice or oppression around you.
I think it is interesting that so many novels, movies, and TV shows have come out with lead female characters that go out into the world and fight injustice. The time is ripe. The world is ready. The Ancient Greeks believed that a young woman who is not yet married is the strongest force on the planet. I absolutely believe it to be true. And, if there is one class of all classes that could do it, it is your class. You are the most resilient and strong minded young women I know. I realized as the year progressed that each of you were carrying around your own hurts, anxieties, and struggles, and yet would come into my class and put all that aside to talk with me about books and poetry. And, we would laugh and tell crazy, sometimes shocking, stories, and get to know one another.
I am going to miss you all so much. I have already been missing you. I have been sitting in my room at my well organized desk waiting for my Romantics, my Postmodernists, my Enlightened Ones and my Classical Beauties to show up, but you do not. It is meant to be. Girls, every morning, I wake up at 4:50 am, brew myself a cup of coffee, sit down in the corner of my sofa and write. After I write, I pray. I pray that I may be a blessing in my students' lives and then I pray a prayer of thanksgiving. I thank God for the blessing of having all of you in my life. Now, it is time for you to be a blessing in other people's lives.
Seniors, I did not end up a Broadway star, but today I feel like I have won a Tony Award. I thank you for letting me speak to you. I see all of you here at this moment in your life, and I absolutely know that you are ready to start act two. I see all of you standing in the wings of the stage waiting for your grand entrance. We here at St. Agnes Academy will be waiting in the lobby with roses and smiles because we are and always will be, so proud of you. No, more than proud - we love you. You will always be in our hearts, in our minds, and in our prayers. That, ladies, is Veritas. Truth. God's truth.